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MONTGOMERY, Alab. - As President Donald Trump urged Americans to unite behind his policy agenda in his first address to Congress, two Montgomery men — a local Democratic faith leader and Trump's campaign state director — were able to do as the president suggested: Find common ground.
Father Manuel Williams, a Democrat and a priest raised by parents who attended segregated schools, watched Trump's speech with Perry Hooper, a Republican former state legislator who oversaw Trump’s campaign and Trump Victory in Alabama, a state the president won by a two-to-one margin in November. They listened as Trump repeatedly called for their two parties to come together, saying that "the time for trivial fights is behind us."
"I am asking all citizens to embrace this renewal of the American spirit," Trump said.
The two men, who have a long-standing, amicable relationship that dates back to their parents' activism in the community, found that there was much in Trump's speech on which they could agree — but still places where they struggled, like the issue of health care.
Williams and Hooper both expressed support for aspects of Trump's agenda, such as allowing individuals to purchase health insurance across state lines, legislative efforts to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, robust investment in the nation's infrastructure, the implementation of paid family leave, and the approval of individuals’ right to try potential lifesaving drugs.
“We agree on a lot of things,” Williams said. “I just have concern about the approach. Most of the times we agree, but it’s the approach.”
When Trump turned his remarks to the planned repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, Williams felt compelled to interject.
“Eight years — where’s the plan?” Williams asked, referencing the fact that Trump and his party have provided little specifics as to what a Republican replacement for the health care law might entail.
"Action is not a choice. It’s a necessity," Hooper responded.
But the two noted the hardship that increasing premiums and high deductibles are having on working families across racial lines in Montgomery. The poverty rate in Montgomery County stood at 22.5 percent, according to a report by the nonprofit Alabama Promise.
Williams and Hooper expressed hope that the federal government’s potential allocation of Medicaid funding through a block grant would effectively allow the state to expand coverage. (Alabama's Republican-led government did not choose to expand Medicaid under the ACA.)
Another thing the two agreed on: Trump's moderated tone. He began his remarks with an acknowledgement of the date, marking the end of Black History Month.
“We are reminded of our nation’s path for civil rights and the work that still needs to be done,” Trump said.
“It was visionary, substantive speech,” Hooper commented after Trump concluded. “He addressed the issues.”
Asked by NBC News what Trump can do to encourage Americans to come together, as he called for in his speech, Hooper responded: “He’s got to do these things that are going to create jobs, addresses inner cities, poor folks, [and make] affordable healthcare. Donald Trump is not scared. He went to churches in Detroit. A lot of Republicans wouldn’t do that.”
Hooper turned to Williams.
“I hope and pray that when he runs for re-election, that you’ll be able to say, 'I changed my mind," Hooper said.
At one pointed, Williams pointed out that Republicans did not embrace the compromise Trump encouraged during Barack Obama's presidency. The Republican-controlled Congress under the former president could have implemented many of the same policies put forth by Trump on Tuesday night, including infrastructure investments, Williams said.
“President Obama would have done the same if Republicans hadn’t obstructed him,” he said, after Hooper praised the president’s proclamations.
Hooper acknowledged Williams’ point, but urged both parties to let bygones be bygones on that score.
“Congressmen and senators have to find a way to agree,” he insisted. “Now they may have to compromise on this and that, but people are mad at all politicians. They’re mad at Republicans and Democrats. They’re mad at obstructionists of the last eight years. They want something to get done.”
Williams, who said that Trump used “racist” language during his campaign, called what he heard Tuesday "a start."
“I’m prepared to give him room to evolve," he said.
Perry jumped in: “He’s going to have to keep doing it.”
“And it’s got to be real,” Williams said.
“[Trump] has to recognize that campaign was extremely, hurtful, threatening and frightening for a lot of people," he added.